Happy Birthday, Bernie ( Show the Ones You Love the Love You Have to Show ).

His name is Bernie, and today is his birthday.

One of the smartest, goofiest-yet-classiest guys I’ve ever known, he was never afraid to poke fun at himself. With his easy-going personality he’s one of those people that never walked away from a stranger. People talk about knowing someone like that. Bernie is that person. He could walk into a room full of strangers and leave behind a room filled with friends. Looks, charm, and smarts made him a much sought after partner for conversation.

We’d be having a talk about politics or golf or the way people drive and I’d be trying to wrap my head around some behavior that had me scratching my head, frustrated. He would offer a summary in a few succinct words. He did it without fanfare and without making a big deal of it. He possessed this Buddhist sensibility. That was the kind of guy he was.

In my book (and no doubt plenty of others) he was the Unofficial Mayor of Waynesville. He knew everyone everywhere. He knew the business of different businesses, and could tell you which ones had a decent shot of succeeding. Here’s an example of the impact he had on his world. Years ago I’d gone downtown and wandered into the newspaper shop on Main Street (a now long lost relic to the past). I grabbed a paper and soda, and as I was paying, the guy behind the counter, who also owned the place, asked how my folks were and told me to say hi to my dad. I hadn’t been there in about a year. Another time I was in town and went with him to one of his Kiwanis Club meetings, where they were talking about doing a haunted house. He immediately volunteered me because of my experience designing them when I was in college. For countless Halloweens after Bernie would call and pick my brain, telling me about the space they had to work with (small), their budget (non-existent), and asked if I could get up there to help.

He’d been in the restaurant supply business for so long there were few who knew more than he when it came to restaurant and kitchen equipment. He could have written a book called ‘Kitchen Confidential’ on the things he’d seen, but he wasn’t an exposé kind of guy.

He had a way of sharing his opinion in such a fashion it often opened your mind.

About a year ago I was up visiting and we had to take a trip into town. He liked to say that when you were living in the mountains every trip was a trip into town. This particular excursion was an excuse to stop at Clyde’s, a Waynesville institution. It was the middle of the afternoon and we got coffee and talked. It was a quiet, unassuming moment, much like the man. Life is filled with moments we realize only later carry deeper impact.

Years ago, back in South Florida, he was thrilled when I took up magic, and would share new techniques. He always referred to himself as ‘The Great Lousini.’ But was as good at a pass, lift, or palm as any pro I’d known. The old saw about how ‘a good magician never reveals his tricks’ didn’t apply. The guy was better than I’ll ever be.

I talked to him the week before he passed away. I made it a point to try to talk to him at least once a week. Some weeks were a lot better than others. I was up there recently. His strength had been much reduced, but the light in his eyes and his wit were both present. The first thing he said when I walked into the house? He told mom we were going to take a trip into town for an ice cream.

I have this great photo I took of him when he and mom first moved up to the mountains of Western North Carolina. Clearing the land on the side of the house where the land sloped up, he happily cut away. He was wielding a chainsaw as I shouted for his attention. He turned around and saw the camera. He hammed it up by holding that chainsaw above his head, opening his mouth like some crazed member of a chainsaw brigade. I smiled as I took the photo, and smiled every time I looked at that picture.

Here was a man much admired and appreciated by all he met. He inspired when he didn’t try. He was my hero, in part because he was so sensible. I grew to admire the boxy style of the Volvo because he drove one for so long. It might have been uncool to most, but not to me, because it was his. It was because of him I learned early in life to appreciate National Public Radio, an appreciation I carry to this day. I can’t turn on a radio without switching to FM and heading to the left on the dial. Turned out to be a good thing I listen so much since a lot of the news I hear is topical and applies well to the courses I’m studying.

Being in a situation where you’re certain you know how you should react, yet can’t, is a tough place. When the thing that triggers confusion is the loss of a loved one, the emotion of choice is sometimes despair. The loss of a loved one is a different experience for each of us. In my case the plunge into fog was quick and without mercy. In the fog I’m fortunate there are people like my mom, reaching out and touching my hand, comforting me by letting me know we take this one day at a time.

My mom is my other hero. She is an Olympian example of strength I cannot possibly possess. Her heartbreak I cannot fathom. My heart cries and struggles as it fights to break free of my chest. She once remarked her job was to ‘help mountain folk keep their heads screwed on straight’. The key word there is help. My blinding quandary is how do I help her?

For the grief that is inevitably going to catch up with me, I am not yet prepared. I’m not ready. Perhaps it makes me something of a coward, convinced I can outrun the pain. If it gets me to a place where I can take my breath before facing the pain, then call me what names you will.

I’ve always been the prodigal son in part because that’s the journey I unwittingly chose. But as I grew older I grew to understand the importance of family, how they prop and support, how they provide insight, refuge, and balance. Conversations where one could disagree without being disagreeable; where one could talk and find a union of the heart and mind. I’m working on my MBA and I’m going to miss those opportunities to talk politics and economics.

When I called the house for the first time after he passed away I heard his voice, thankfully still on the voicemail message. The first time I heard that voice singing, “Nothin’ could be finer than to be in Carolina…” I thought it was so corny. We all did. But it was perfect and it was Bernie. Hearing that voice now brings a smile wrapped in sadness.

And I understood why of late he was reluctant to be seen on the streets of downtown Waynesville. It wasn’t that no one wants to see their beloved Mayor, their hero, reduced of strength physically, even if still a giant mentally. But more importantly to him, he didn’t want people to see him and become worried. That was also Bernie.

I’d give anything for one more cup of coffee at Clyde’s.

Happy birthday, Dad.  Thanks for introducing me to NPR and Daniel Silva, among other things. I love you and consider myself most fortunate indeed to have been part of your world.

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One Response to “Happy Birthday, Bernie ( Show the Ones You Love the Love You Have to Show ).”

  1. Denise Says:

    Amazing man. A pleasure reading about him. 🙂

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